Sometimes there’s nothing more useful than bad news. So when it was confirmed at the start of September that Canada’s economy was in recession, the leaders of the opposition parties were turning cartwheels on their way to the stump. ‘The news that is consuming Ottawa today is old hat to Canadians across the country,’ declared Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Party’s youthful leader and the son of Canada’s long-serving prime minister Pierre Trudeau. ‘They know Stephen Harper’s approach is failing them.’ Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), was jubilant: ‘Stephen Harper is the only prime minister in Canadian history who, when asked about the recession during his mandate, gets to say: “Which one?”’
The news, which was largely driven by low oil prices, came at a specially bad time for Harper, the Conservative leader. He had dissolved parliament on 2 August, and called an election for 19 October. A tight three-way race between the Conservatives, the Liberals and the NDP started to take shape, but Harper’s campaign was struggling to get off the ground. His first problem was an expenses scandal: in 2013, a Conservative Senator called Mike Duffy accepted a cheque – allegedly a bribe – of $90,172 from Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff, in order to pay off expenses he shouldn’t have claimed. Duffy’s trial was at a critical point in August, and the only thing the media were interested in was how much Harper had known about the affair.
Things seemed to get worse with the Syrian refugee crisis, or more specifically the image of Alan Kurdi’s body. Kurdi’s family had been trying to reach relatives in Canada when he drowned along with his brother and mother. Both Mulcair and Trudeau called for a large number of refugees to be let into the country immediately. The Conservatives, on the day the image broke, had been planning to make an announcement about strengthening immigration controls. They cancelled that plan, but Harper still looked callous when he insisted on combining any intake of refugees with tight security measures and ‘a firm and military stance against Isis’.
The other problem for Harper was that the opposition parties were looking more plausible than any he’d faced since he defeated Paul Martin’s Liberals in 2006. The NDP, traditionally an outsider on the left of Canadian politics, got a bump in the polls last May when it took power in Alberta, a province that has voted Progressive Conservative for almost fifty years. Mulcair entered the campaign as favourite and, with his high poll numbers presumably made up mostly of Canada’s left, he made a reasonable strategic decision: the next voters to gain were in the centre ground. He started to toss out policy positions. The policy book was even taken down from the party website. He promised to balance the budget, he left pro-Palestinian members of the party out in the cold (admittedly, they have been there for some time) and he promised not to raise anyone’s personal income tax. The Liberals outflanked the NDP from the left. Trudeau promised to run ‘three modest deficits’ in order to invest in infrastructure. He wanted to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year, while Mulcair thought 10,000 more appropriate. And he promised to create a new tax bracket to raise taxes for people earning over $200,000 (vive la révolution).
The Liberals’ strategy worked: Trudeau came to be seen as the candidate who embodied change, and he caught up with Mulcair in the polls. But then, towards the middle of September, it suddenly looked as though all the chips were falling in Harper’s favour. The Duffy trial, adjourned until November, dropped down the news agenda. An economic uptick in June (despite a decline over the entire quarter) came to seem more important than the ‘technical recession’, as the Conservatives liked to call it (GDP had shrunk, modestly, for two consecutive quarters: don’t tell us this means we’re in recession). In any case, economic uncertainty can make change look risky. As for the refugee crisis, it turns out that if two parties are both on one side of a divisive issue, it’s a good idea to be on the other side.
Enter Lynton Crosby to advise the Harper campaign. On 15 September, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the Conservatives’ 2011 ban on women wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies was illegal. Harper affected outrage: he would never tell his ‘daughter that a woman has to cover her face because she is a woman’. No sooner had he promised that his government would reintroduce the legislation within a hundred days of being re-elected than the Conservatives could talk about nothing else. The reason was that both Mulcair and Trudeau had decided to defend minority rights, despite opinion polls indicating that 82 per cent of Canadians backed the ban, with support at 93 per cent in Quebec, a province the NDP had to win to have any chance of forming a majority government. On 26 September, the Conservatives doubled down by stripping a convicted terrorist, Zakaria Amara, of his Canadian citizenship, in the first application of a new citizenship law.
The Conservative strategy seems to be working. The NDP shed 17 points in Quebec, and its support nationally dropped from the mid-30s to around 25 per cent. The Liberals seem to have taken the hit better (and in theory have a lot to gain from an NDP crash): at the time of writing, they stand at 32 per cent, level with the Tories, whose vote, as in Britain, has historically been underestimated by the polls. Of course, this could all change. One issue in particular has so far rumbled in the background and could end up defining the campaign: on 5 October, the ‘caretaker’ Conservative government agreed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the world’s largest trade deal, which reduced tariffs and set common standards for trade between 12 Pacific Rim countries. Trudeau seems inclined to support it, with Mulcair insisting that an NDP government would not be bound by the deal. It could be more important than any other election issue, but it’s too early to say how it will play out.
If Harper retains power, he will continue with an agenda that has restored the confidence of Canadian conservatism. During the 2006 election, when he first came to power, he was asked – seriously – whether he loved his country. The problem wasn’t just that he didn’t seem to be able to emote on demand. The Liberals held power in Canada for 69 years of the 20th century – more than any other political party in a Western democracy. In The Longer I’m Prime Minister, a biography of Harper published in 2013, Paul Wells quotes a Conservative strategist talking about the symbols associated with Canada: ‘Healthcare. The Charter [of Rights and Freedoms]. Peacekeeping. The United Nations. The CBC. Almost every single example was a Liberal achievement or a Liberal policy.’ When a country is so dominated by a single party, how do you distinguish contempt for the politics of that party from contempt for Canadian politics – and Canadians – as a whole? There is still a school of thought that suggests Harper’s goal is nothing more ambitious than smashing up the Liberal Party.
That’s unfair. Harper, alongside Angela Merkel, is probably the most successful conservative politician in contemporary Western politics. He undoubtedly wants the Conservatives to end the Liberals’ reign as Canada’s ‘natural governing party’ (though I’d be more convinced of his commitment to that goal if he weren’t so quick to offload anyone in his party who looks like a plausible successor), but he has also reduced the size of the state by slashing taxes and closing down or reducing the budgets of hundreds of federal departments and research programmes. Federal revenue as a proportion of GDP is at its lowest level in fifty years. And he has promoted new national symbols – monarchy, military and ice hockey (a subject about which he has written an entire book) – that put him in more of a chest-thumping mood than universal healthcare.
In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Canada is now a conservative country in search of an excuse. Socially liberal attitudes to abortion and same-sex marriage are entrenched, but campaign messaging for all the parties has had a relentlessly insular focus on ‘the middle class’, low taxes and security. In modern politics, this is all part of a sophisticated, data-driven search for votes. Often what it means in Canada is that the country’s real problems are ignored. The condition of Aboriginal Canadians, to take one example, is a national disgrace. They make up 4 per cent of the population, and 23.2 per cent of the prison population. The murder rate among Aboriginals, as Scott Gilmore has pointed out in Maclean’s, is higher than in Somalia. More than 840,000 Canadians, 13.6 per cent of them Aboriginals, use food banks every month in a country of just 35 million people. Little of this seems to have registered with the party leaders, let alone passed their lips on the campaign trail.
The paradox of the Canadian election is that it’s supposed to be about change (64 per cent of Canadians want a new prime minister), yet on crucial issues, the economy in particular, the main story has been about political convergence. All the parties are pursuing the same swing voters – something that could become a common feature of the new data-driven approach to politics. It’s not clear how sustainable that is: the reaction to perceived political convergence in Britain was Jeremy Corbyn. But at the moment Canadian politics are less turbulent than politics in Britain or the US. I can’t help feeling that Canada could use a real shake-up, and not in the direction Harper wants to take it. That probably won’t happen any time soon; the theory, which looks like a good one here, is that it’s not the way to get votes. Stephen Harper might not win this election, but this time no one is asking whether he loves his country.